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What I learned about urban development and environmental preservation from kayaking Alewife Brook

Surrounded by industry and highways, Alewife Brook doesn’t look like a place to kayak. But maybe . . .

Writer Greg Harris paddles past the outside of a dilapidated parking garage ramp at the Alewife MBTA station.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Alewife Brook doesn’t look like a place for kayaking. It emerges hard by the MBTA’s Alewife station as a muddy, sluggish wash hugging a graffitied parking ramp. It’s joined by Belmont’s Little River before entering a concrete channel under Route 2. There, it collects debris — such as orange traffic cones half-submerged in brownish goo — and continues alongside Arlington’s Cambridge and Somerville borders. A mile north, shallow with sedimentation, it flows into the Mystic River above Medford Square.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates the brook’s water quality a “D,” and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority reported in 2020 that no matter the weather — dry or wet — the brook’s levels of E. coli contamination failed to meet health standards. Neighbors near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Route 16 regularly complain of the odor of raw sewage.

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I am one of those neighbors.

On a brilliant afternoon last fall, I set out to kayak the 1.6 miles of Alewife Brook and the additional mile or so of Little River to see if I could do it, and perhaps to encourage others to try. In the years since moving to North Cambridge, I’d learned another side to Alewife: as an urban sanctuary and green space, the brook and surrounding landscape home to an abundance of wildlife. Even before the pandemic, I’d spent glorious hours walking, jogging, and biking its stone dust paths and boardwalks, encountering dusky green heron and hooded mergansers, deer, and painted turtles. I wasn’t alone. During the pandemic, Alewife Brook Reservation has been a lifesaver for grateful residents of densely settled Cambridge, Somerville, and eastern Arlington seeking breathing space.

Back in the late 1800s, Charles Eliot, founder of The Trustees of Reservations and a pioneer (along with mentor Frederick Law Olmsted) in preserving urban parklands, saw the Alewife area as representing the lungs of the region — a valuable link in an “Emerald Metropolis” of greenways stretching from the Blue Hills to the Middlesex Fells. It was through Eliot’s influence that Alewife, now run by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, became a park more than a century ago.

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Today, the gap is vast between Eliot’s vision of an expansive natural space and the narrow, degraded park that one Cambridge planner described to me as having reached a low point 20 years ago, as “a place that industrial buildings turned their backs on.” It’s the gap between development premised on resource exploitation, and development that treats natural places as if they matter. It’s the gap between money pressing for space, with Alewife targeted for biotech deals in the millions and billions of dollars, and the space we need to live at a time when rising sea levels, heat, and chaotic rainfall threaten the coastal regions and cities that most Americans inhabit.

It was into that gap that I set out to paddle my kayak.

FIRST STOP: a Fresh Pond Mall pet store, to buy aquarium water-quality test strips. Living by Alewife for 10 years had motivated me to give something back to the green space I so appreciated. I’d helped on trash pickup days and ultimately joined Green Cambridge’s Alewife Advisory Board. There I learned of the “Mad Kayaker,” Roger Frymire, whose paddling in the Malden and Charles Rivers had led to cleanups, thanks in part to his preternatural ability to smell sewage and other pollutants in the water. “When Frymire sniffs,” the Globe reported in 2005, “municipalities from Waltham to Boston shudder.”

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A needle, one of many, discarded behind a former parking garage for Alewife Station at the Alewife Brook Reservation in Cambridge.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Before my foray to the pet store, I’d been dubious: Could test strips really suss out contaminants in a body of water so much bigger than an aquarium? But a water quality professional had suggested them, saying that ammonia indicated fecal contamination in aquariums and brooks alike. I made my selection and stepped up to the register.

The irony of my mall visit was that I was parked atop Alewife Brook. Before the brook surfaces at the T station, it passes under square miles of asphalt and cement, gathering water from the slopes of western Cambridge and eastern Belmont. All of this land, from Fresh Pond to Arlington’s Spy Pond, was originally a tidal wetland known by the colonists as The Great Swamp. It was rich habitat for the Alewife herring, a saltwater fish that spawns in fresh water. So valuable were these fish to the early colonists, once they’d been taught by the Wampanoag to bury them with corn and squash seed as fertilizer, that by the 1630s the issue of who had rights to the most important weir landed in court. This particularly rich fish trap was located near the place where Massachusetts Avenue crosses Route 16 today — in other words, exactly where the region now directs raw sewage.

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How does a Great Swamp metamorphose into a mall, an MBTA transportation hub, an eight-lane highway terminus, thousands of apartments, and offices and labs? Here’s how: It gets drained for farmland, then is beset by water and waste-intensive industries such as tanneries. Its blue clay soils get excavated by the New England Brick Co. to build Harvard University’s Sever Hall and Boston’s Trinity Church. It accumulates housing for the immigrants who work the brick factories, and then — on the exhausted clay pits — becomes the site for town dumps and, eventually, publicly subsidized housing such as the massive Rindge Towers. A third wave of housing, mostly rental apartments, including luxury units, crowds close to the T.

Once the waters have no more wetlands to dissipate through, the floods come. A 1909 correspondent to the Cambridge Chronicle hailed a project to straighten, dredge, and move the brook — engineering the last of the Great Swamp out of existence — because “Alewife brook has for years been a plague spot . . . a sluggish stream, now flowing slowly toward the Mystic, now backing up toward the Fresh pond marshes, it has been a veritable breeding place for mosquitoes, and a fruitful source of malaria to the inhabitants near its shores.”

The Alewife region, in short, became marginal, post-industrial land, up for grabs by commercial developers and transportation planners. Some areas had few or no residents. In others the residents were of lower income, were recent immigrants, or were transitory — groups historically not given much say in the fate of a neighborhood.

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From the mall pet store, it takes only a few turns, and some pumping up of my inflatable boat, then I’m on the Mystic River across from the mouth of the Alewife.

The graffitied wall of a former parking garage ramp at Alewife Station rests in Alewife Brook alongside debris and a submerged shopping cart.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

THE EARLY SIGNS of my voyage were auspicious. The late September air was warm, the trees green and gold and flame-colored, and the water of the Mystic had tested clean. This was unsurprising: the Mystic earns a B+ and, in the swimmable Mystic Lakes, an A+. At the mouth of the Alewife, a kingfisher pipped by, and Canada geese watched me from atop a muskrat mound. My kayak scraped at times along the bottom sediment, but I moved upstream through dappled sunlight. A great blue heron lifted its enormous wings and, with a disappointed croak, flew off to better hunting grounds.

I leaned over my kayak to dip the test strips in again (I was testing every 30 feet or so). Alewife’s water tested clean even when I positioned myself in front of crumbling cement storm-water pipes. How odd. Just as I wondered if my primitive testing gear was working, a surprise: Patrick Herron, the executive director of the nonprofit Mystic River Watershed Association, was paddling a canoe toward me. I recognized him from a Zoom call earlier in the year.

His organization, whose advocacy has helped improve the Mystic’s grades, works with the EPA to produce the water-quality report cards. “Are you here monitoring the water?” I asked, astonished to find anyone else paddling the Alewife.

He laughed. “Nope, here enjoying it.” He thought that my water test strips were reading accurately, and the odds were that we were fine. It had been more than 48 hours since a rain event — an important margin of safety in planning this sort of trip.

In a later conversation, he sounded wistful that the brook is not accessed much. “There’s a negative story of polluted water. We have to change that story,” he told me. “But first we have to change the facts the story is based on.”

A duck swims in Alewife Brook near the drainage pipe beneath the Alewife Brook Pathway.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

ALEWIFE’S physical characteristics — its short, shallow run, set among the most densely inhabited cities in New England — make the brook vulnerable. “Alewife is developed right up to the edge,” Herron says.

When storms hit, rain flushes debris and fertilizer, oil and trash, pesticides and metals, and dog poop into the sewer systems designed to concentrate and carry away unwanted stuff from our dwelling places and businesses. Some sewer systems, such as those in Belmont and Arlington, are separated: Sewage goes into one set of pipes and rainfall into another. Only the storm-water runoff reaches Alewife. Other sewer systems, such as the ones that have been in Cambridge and Somerville since the 1850s, historically put rainfall and sewage together in the same pipes. In heavy rainfall, the pipes dump their “combined sewer overflows” into Alewife.

Of the two sources of pollution, perhaps surprisingly, everyone from the EPA to advocacy groups like the Mystic River Watershed Association agrees that storm-water runoff represents the bulk of Alewife’s problems. Even beyond what rain washes from roads and pathways, storm-water pipes in this region are old and leaky, as are the sewage lines, and in some places commingle in the ground even when the overall system is labeled “separated.”

Added to that, some waterways feeding into Alewife and Little River, such as Belmont’s Winn Brook, are buried in culverts, picking up contaminants where daylight and natural processes can’t disinfect. From these sources alone, Alewife would earn its near failing grades for bacterial contamination, data show.

But it’s hard to argue with the attention-grabbing awfulness of raw sewage. Much has improved since the early 2000s when Kristin Anderson, founder of activist group Save the Alewife Brook, recalls seeing toilet paper and human feces drift by (and during one flood, into) her East Arlington home near the brook. “Floatables controls” have been installed, and half of the outfalls (a drain system mouth) from the combined sewer overflows have been closed off. Cambridge and Somerville have been working to separate their sewage and rainfall systems (Cambridge is 55 percent separated as of this year; Somerville, only 10 percent). But in 2021, an especially rainy year, Save the Alewife Brook counted some 51 million gallons of storm water-sewage mix dumped through six outfalls: one was Somerville’s, four Cambridge’s, and one the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority’s, serving as emergency relief for Belmont and other towns.

It was these outfalls, several clustered beneath Massachusetts Avenue, that I most wanted to test with my aquarium strips. But as I paddled upstream in my inflatable kayak, I kept running into barriers of fallen trees clogging the brook.

I scraped over some of them, fearing a puncture. Finally, alongside St. Paul Cemetery where the brook is encased by a concrete bottom and walls, I faced a log and trash pileup with no way around it. I gave up and turned back, deflated.

A sunny summer afternoon at the Alewife Brook Pathway attracts visitors.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

CHARLES ELIOT stars in the Alewife Watershed Trust’s 2002 book The Great Swamp of Arlington, Belmont, and Cambridge: An Historic Perspective of Its Development, 1630-2001, which captures the region’s history and the stories of activists trying to save its natural character. Eliot had grand designs for wetlands and estuaries, which “offered such pleasant courses from the heart of the City to the sea.” After his death in 1897 at age 37, the book recounts, “Cambridge went back to viewing the Great Swamp area as prime industrial land.” And prime for transportation, too. Activists would go on to fight losing battles against the siting of Route 2 and the T station, and against the road widenings and much-maligned traffic rotaries that have turned Fresh Pond and Alewife Brook parkways into the opposite of Eliot’s vision for “a synthesis of road and adjacent landscape designed for driving as a leisurely, recreational, and aesthetically enjoyable activity.”

The fights aren’t over. Talk to longtime activists from local associations such as Alewife Study Group, Friends of Jerry’s Pond, Save the Alewife Brook, Alewife Coalition, Alewife Neighbors, or Friends of the Alewife Reserve, and you sense the strains of going against developers — even arrests over a grove of silver maples in Belmont (an echo, perhaps, of Eliot’s transformative stand for the town’s Waverley Oaks). The 40-year, $4.5-billion Boston Harbor cleanup process, launched as a result of a Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit in 1983, restored the harbor’s sparkling waters, gave Boston swimmable urban beaches, and upgraded the famous “dirty waters” of the Charles to a Harvard-respectable A- in recent years. Somehow it has left Alewife, Cambridge’s other river, failing to meet standards.

Yet there’s reason to hope that things can change. The EPA has made environmental justice a priority, and with concentrations of publicly subsidized housing close by or on the former wetlands of Alewife, leaders such as Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui (who grew up in Rindge Towers and Roosevelt Towers) have begun to make the case for improved access to green space. Developers are now required to deal with the threat of climate change and consider the benefits of resilient systems. Biotech lab builder IQHQ, which has spent $179 million to buy Alewife-adjacent land, has been in talks with Siddiqui and area advocates about environmentally-sound infrastructure and restoring green space at Jerry’s Pond to public use.

Ken Moraff, director of the water division at New England EPA, says federal infrastructure money makes this an “ideal time” for cities to address storm-water runoff with rain gardens and infiltration trenches. And Cambridge, Somerville, and the MWRA are preparing a new long-term control plan for the combined sewer overflows in the Alewife. At the first public meeting, held June 29, attendees debated how to plan for a “typical year,” given climate change.

The trick will be recognizing real opportunity when it comes, and not giving in to negativity about what is already lost. The Great Swamp devotes some pages to fighting against an idea that, in 2002, was in the planning stages: a new retention pond Cambridge would build in the Alewife Reserve to catch and treat storm-water runoff. “Completely inappropriate,” the Coalition for Alewife declared, citing devastation of habitat, flooding risk — and distrust of Cambridge’s track record.

But the retention pond did get built, and last fall, after I couldn’t reach it by kayak from the Mystic River, I made a new plan: to paddle toward it from the upriver side — Alewife’s headwaters in Belmont’s Little Pond.

Writer Greg Harris paddles along the Little River at the Alewife Brook Reservation on a summer afternoon.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

FROM ITS pristine-looking waters, you wouldn’t know that Little Pond is water-quality challenged. You also wouldn’t know that the pond margins are DCR land, part of Alewife Reserve. Many area residents seem to treat the public land as an extension of their lawns.

I was traveling with a friend this time. We drove back and forth seeking public access to put in. Eventually, we carried our kayaks between two buildings and launched.

The paddle from Little Pond down Little River was achingly beautiful. The October leaves were riotous with peak color, reflected in the smoothly flowing water. I lost track of how many herons and ducks and swans we saw, how many quick flips of fish. At one point deer, unafraid, watched from the bank as we floated by, and a muskrat looked up from its busy swimming. We passed a few tents, reminding me that the area has long been a place where homeless people make camp.

We rounded a bend and were surrounded at a distance by high office and lab buildings. A flute player practiced on a viewing platform above the river. Ducks, geese, and several absurdly large carp circulated, as if expecting (unfortunately) to be fed. On the paths nearby, dozens of people strolled, admiring the wetland views. In the woods alongside, plastic netting protected a section of restored native vegetation planted by Cambridge high schoolers working in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

A young deer rests within sight of the Fitchburg Cutoff Bikepath along the Alewife Brook Reservation in Cambridge.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

“A national park moment,” a friend had said once to me, when we were walking through part of Alewife. And there is a connection: The National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program is consulting on improvements to the reserve after a grant proposal by Green Cambridge drew their attention (full disclosure: I helped write the proposal). Community planners Elizabeth Brown and Stephanie Stroud told me that “if people can’t access a place, it’s hard to get them to invest.” Here was access — and proof of their thesis. These wetlands helped motivate my involvement in Alewife.

The thing is: This was the storm-water retention pond that the authors of The Great Swamp had so feared. How had it become such an inviting space, this piece of engineering meant to settle out pollutants? Officials involved in its design cited a process of collaboration: Cambridge’s court-mandated need to clean up storm water meeting the DCR’s principles of design for access, ecological restoration, and public education. Now this constructed wetland — a park — is a model for green infrastructure and hailed in the MWRA’s reports on the region’s waterways.

It was also an effort with planning and implementation that unfolded over nearly 20 years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and required an act of the state Legislature. As Somerville’s storm-water program manager, Lucica Hiller, told me, “If Alewife was easy to restore, it would have been done by now.”

But the flip side of all the dense development around Alewife and other urban sanctuaries is that there are more people to invest in and safeguard these places. The 2003 Alewife Master Plan that envisioned the constructed wetland also called for other improvements: more trails, a second storm-water wetland, the removing of Alewife’s concrete streambed to restore more natural flow. To have any chance at completion amidst all the competing demands on urban space, such efforts require coalitions behind them of park users, city councils, DCR planners and ecologists, and others. This tug in both directions is playing out right now in Alewife: even as high schoolers toil at restoring native plants in one part of the reserve, gas crews a mile away tasked with maintaining the Algonquin pipeline are felling mature trees and scarring the landscape.

Steven Nutter, the head of Green Cambridge, speaks of assembling an even larger coalition, a regional effort to restore and reconnect pieces of the now-lost Great Swamp. He points to a 2018 storm surge that came within 18 inches of overtopping the Amelia Earhart Dam between Somerville and Everett, risking catastrophic flooding upstream. The rising sea levels and extreme rain events of our warming climate are almost certain to confront Alewife with volumes of water that outstrip its capacities, and it would serve us well to study how the tides were once accommodated.

The kayak trip ended in adventure: practically doing the limbo beneath Route 2, then scraping along the concrete channel down to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. Nearby was another impassable blockage, and it was getting dark. My friend and I looked at each other and realized we didn’t have to go back to Little Pond: We could just pull the kayaks and carry them across Route 16. A few blocks later, we were hosing them down in the yard. It wasn’t until dinnertime that I realized I’d completely forgotten to test the water with my aquarium strips. I was having too much fun.


Greg Harris is a writer based in Cambridge. Find his work at gregoryharris.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.